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Threadless CCO Jeffrey Kalmikoff
Threadless CCO Jeffrey Kalmikoff
Chicago-based is not a typical T-shirt company, and an even less typical marketer given how tightly and fashionably its product, its consumers, its designers and its communications are woven together. While consumer hunger for limited edition garments has reached gargantuan proportions in recent years, resulting in a proliferation of indie designer tee brands, Threadless remains unique by turning to its would-be customers to design the product itself. Registered users submit shirt graphic designs online, the community votes and the most popular designs get made. The company releases seven new designs and two reprints each week. Chosen designers get $2000 and a $500 Threadless gift certificate for their efforts. Since starting in 2000, the brand has grown from three friends barely in their 20s selling shirts in the dozens to a company with just under 35 employees shipping an average of almost 90,000 shirts every month from its Chicago warehouse.

"The main key to our success has been to let things happen on their own, without a lot of pushing but instead nurturing new projects or ideas," says chief creative officer Jeffrey Kalmikoff. "You can't force a community to happen. It's an organic thing. (If you force it) you'll either self-destruct your brand, or if you are able to bully some people into participating, they're fully aware that it's a brand community instead of something that they'd visit and participate in anyway. So we learned to just let things happen and sort of nurture it along as it grows."

Part of its organic nurturing process is to eschew traditional advertising and instead focus on providing ways for the Threadless community to grow itself. "We don't advertise at all," says Kalmikoff. "All our efforts are towards finding ways of expanding word of mouth. If you're a designer and you want to get chosen, you're going to tell everyone you know to go to the site and vote. If you're going to do that, why wouldn't we give you the tools to do that better? Banners for your site, the ability to send mass e-mails and stuff like that. It also grows our site because in order to vote, people need to register and get a username, which gets more people on our newsletter. Is it marketing? Of course. Is it planned out? Now that we know what we're doing it is, but it didn't start out that way."

In September, the brand opened its first retail space in Chicago and is already planning to open more around the U.S. in small cities with thriving art scenes, Kalmifoff says.

"This is a company run by real people who believe and participate in their own project," he adds. "There isn't a secret to making things appear that way, you just do it or you don't."

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